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Earth Day Turns 40

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FAITH LAPIDUS: I’m Faith Lapidus.

BOB DOUGHTY: And I’m Bob Doughty with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. April twenty-second marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. Former United States Senator Gaylord Nelson started the observance in nineteen seventy. The aim of this day is to urge local action and increase awareness about the state of the world’s environment. The creation of Earth Day is widely considered the beginning of the modern environmental movement.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Gaylord Nelson was a Democrat from the state of Wisconsin. He had always been interested in environmental issues and worked hard to improve the environment in his state. The American public was also increasingly becoming aware of the huge environmental problems the country faced.

In nineteen sixty-nine two environmental problems caught the nation’s attention. The first was a huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. More than eighty thousand barrels of crude oil from the spill severely damaged over sixty kilometers of coastline. The second was increased news reporting about a river so polluted that it caught on fire. This was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio.

BOB DOUGHTY: Senator Nelson knew there was growing public concern about the country’s polluted air, rivers and land. He had been searching for a way to make the environment a subject of national interest to the country’s politicians and leaders. He had observed that students at colleges across the country had been organizing “teach-in” demonstrations to protest the war in Vietnam. He realized that this “teach-in” method would be a useful way for the public to express concern about the environment to federal and state officials.

FAITH LAPIDUS: In September of nineteen sixty-nine Senator Nelson announced his aim to create a national version of an environmental teach-in. The idea immediately received wide popular support from students, teachers, religious centers and other community groups. It was so popular that his Senate office alone could not deal with the many responses.

So, Senator Nelson created an independent non-profit group called Environmental Teach-In, Inc to help organize what would become an environmental revolution.

BOB DOUGHTY: Gaylord Nelson hired a student and activist named Denis Hayes to lead this special campaign. The aim was to get people young and old across the United States to act locally in solving environmental problems in their areas. Senator Nelson did not want the campaign to be about the changes and actions he wanted for the environment.

The movement was to be driven by the American public on a “grassroots” or local level. It was to be an event not just supported by students. Women, labor unions, religious groups, political groups, scientists and environmental organizations would also support the event.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The planning for a national protest on the environment soon began to receive national media attention. The Environmental Teach-In group began to educate people about how to take action locally and spread the news of the event. The group stated that the national day for the environment would be “more than a day of fruitless talking.” And, they created a new name for their national teach-in event: Earth Day.

BOB DOUGHTY: The hard work of this grassroots effort resulted in the first Earth Day on April twenty-second, nineteen seventy. An estimated twenty million people took part in this event. In New York City, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic as people marched through the streets. At demonstrations in Atlanta, Georgia, and Miami, Florida people protested to demand a cleaner environment.

Gaylord Nelson speaking in Denver, Colorado on Earth Day in 1970
Gaylord Nelson speaking in Denver, Colorado on Earth Day in 1970

Gaylord Nelson later said that “Earth Day worked because of the immediate response at the grassroots level.” He said that the event organized itself.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Lawmakers in Washington seemed to have understood the public demand for a cleaner environment. In December of nineteen seventy, a new federal agency began its work.

The Environmental Protection Agency aimed to bring together federal research, supervision, and enforcement of environmental matters. By nineteen seventy-four several other environmental laws had been signed. These include the Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act, and the Endangered Species Act.


BOB DOUGHTY: Earth Day is now a worldwide event. One of its official organizers in the United States is a Washington based non-profit group called Earth Day Network. Susan Bass is the vice-president of programs and operations at Earth Day Network. She says that Earth Day is still very much about activism and fighting for the environment on a local level.

SUSAN BASS: “That’s the wonderful thing about Earth Day is that it really provides a platform, an opportunity for grassroots organizations and community organizations to really focus on what’s happening in their neighborhoods and their homes in their communities, in their businesses and to focus on the priority problems and to engage people maybe for the first time in taking environmental action.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Earth Day Network works on environmental programs around the world.

SUSAN BASS: “We are active now in one hundred ninety countries and it’s estimated that one billion people participate in Earth Day events around the globe now.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: One event in Rabat, Morocco will celebrate the country’s new Charter for Environment and Sustainable Development. Its aim is to guide the country’s environmental policies and future laws to protect natural resources and ensure safe economic development.

Susan Bass says that this year’s Earth Day will be a busy one in the United States.

SUSAN BASS: “We’re going to be active all over the United States; we have events across the country from Santa Monica to New York, to the heartland of the country.”

BOB DOUGHTY: Susan Bass tells about an important event in Washington.

SUSAN BASS: “And then our flagship event will be on April twenty-fifth. It will be the Climate Rally where we’ll be inviting people from all walks of life to join us on the National Mall to call on our leaders to take action on climate change.”

BOB DOUGHTY: The goal of this event is to demand that lawmakers pass new legislation on climate change and clean energy in two thousand ten. The event is expected to include performances by musicians including Sting, John Legend, and the Roots.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Some cities and communities will hold Earth Day activities and celebrations for an entire week, not just on April twenty-second. Events in Novato, California will include an art exhibit called “Where You Are.” The exhibit at the Marin Community Foundation will show artwork influenced by the environment and by Earth Day.

In Irving, Texas people can attend an event called “Earth Day… Naturally.” People can gather to listen to music, eat healthful foods and learn about new green technologies. They can also bring their electronic devices to be recycled instead of thrown away.

And, the Oregon non-profit SOLV has organized a clean-up day called SOLV IT. People across the state will work together on one hundred twenty-five local projects to clean trash, remove invasive plants and improve water areas.

BOB DOUGHTY: On Earth Day, the artist and building designer Maya Lin will launch a Web site about the Earth’s endangered plants and animals. The project is called “What is Missing?” The Web site, a book and a series of art projects around the world will bring attention to the disappearing biodiversity on our planet. The project will help people understand the many threats to the natural environments where endangered plants and animals live. The goal of the project is to raise awareness about the species that are disappearing and to tell people what can be done to help the situation.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Denis Hayes was the activist who helped organize Earth Day forty years ago. He has spent his career working to support environmental issues. He recently wrote an article about the meaning of Earth Day in two thousand ten.

Denis Hayes said lawmakers in Washington have repeatedly failed to make the environment a central issue. But he says the American public can force Congress to pay more attention to this subject. He says Congress can only act intelligently and boldly on the issue of climate change if the American public gives it no other choice. So, he says Americans must use their votes to elect officials for whom the environment is important.

Denis Hayes also discusses two climate bills currently being proposed by American lawmakers. He says each new version of one bill is weaker and less effective than the one before it. He suggests that lawmakers who ignore climate change should start losing their jobs in the next election.


BOB DOUGHTY: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. What is your country doing to celebrate Earth Day? You can comment at our Web site, Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.